The “Singularity” – informational, technological, or any other kind – keeps coming up in Science Fiction these days. The idea of it obviously the cause for much great science fiction, and of course this should be explored, but at the same time I wonder if it will shift the focus of science fiction toward this limit itself – and leave many other sections of the genre to wane in popularity.

Revolution to Revolution: First Edition of Triplanetary with its “modern” counterpart, Consider Phlebas.

Space opera, is a good example. I’ve long been a space opera fan, from its pulpiness to its hard science version in modernity. However, going back to read the Lensman series by E.E. “Doc” Smith is to submerge oneself in an archaic past. It’s very hard to go from Iain M. Banks’, Alastair Reynolds’ and Neal Asher’s worlds and read what is considered the pioneer of Space Opera. In his time, Smith was the cutting edge of SF, so much so that the US Navy operations were eventually inspired by his ideas. But fast-forward today and its all common place. None of the technology or ideas are particularly far reaching. Everything is dated. Even its characters who are so rooted in pre-1950 culture, where men are real men and women are… housewives.  Obviously that was the sign of the times and not everything is meant to last, but still, we’re talking 60 years ago.

Some people say that the Tech Singularity will occur within 50 years, so what then, will the Science Fiction of then – if that is at all possible – be like? If we can’t look beyond the singularity and imagine what life will be like, then I presume we must say the same of science fiction.  Of course, there is already post singularity science fiction. Much of the SF about the Singularity is about living people beyond it, so perhaps in this there is not much to worry about.

Except how all previous SF is considered by the modern person of the future. Will they look at Banks’ Culture novels with the same judgmental eye that some of us look at Doc Smith?

Don’t get me wrong, I have no doubt that science fiction writers will continue to astound and revolutionize their own works and genre, my opening statements is testament to that, but I worry that our audience will become uninterested in what we have to say.

I’m tempted to put forward a theory about the precession of speculative fiction. Looking back at some of the very first science fiction, such as Cyrano de Bergerac’s “L’Autre Monde: ou les États et Empires de la Lune” (The Other World: or the States and Empires of the Moon) is, though of historical interest, holds nothing for the modern audience, a world who has seen humans walk on the Moon fifty years ago. It is on the verge of falling into quaint romanticism, if not fantasy.

Interestingly, science fiction seems to be recycling the old into new. It may not exactly be science fiction, as that term is defined, but it is very popular: Steam punk. I’d rather not say it is new, because it is far from it, but it is reaching heights of popularity that most dared not dream of. And in its wake we see a lot of similar trends: Victorian science fiction, diesel punk, Weird World War, and the like.  There was a time when Victorian Science Fiction was just SCIENCE FICTION, but today it is more like fantasy. Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues reads more like fantasy, but in his own time, it proposed the used of submarine technology to upset the balance of the world.  Some of these remain in a form which is still popular and hasn’t suffered at the merciless hands of time, but their context has irrevocably changed: great to read, but not relevant to our daily life, or our future, except perhaps as a quaint parable.

If one were to write a story with a similar topic, it would not be published as science fiction. At best, science fantasy and that’s being generous.  Remember that the cutting edge of Space Opera in the 1950s is now an archaic, even slightly misogynistic, form of literature – a dinosaur to today’s Homo Sapiens – so will today’s equivalent be regarded by us in a similar way in ten years, twenty, or from the event horizon of the Technological Singularity?

I hope not.

On the creative end, I feel we see a lot more fabricated universes than before. That is to say that long ago, science fiction was arguable always set in our world, in its future and perhaps somewhat more limited by what we knew and saw. That dalliance developed into alternative history, probably by the desire to see what might have changed if such and such had been different: the the American Civil War, World War Two have been large foci for that genre, and the fledgeling Steam Punk movement as well. As time has gone on and the idea of multiple possibilities, parallel worlds, unbound dimensions, universes within universes, etc, have become more and more common place. Nowadays there are plenty of science fiction novels that don’t necessarily take place in our own universe, but in ones where physics are wildly different. They belong largely to the “fantasy” genre, but share a lot with science fiction, even communicating the same kinds of ideas that science fiction is usually used for, while still being able to engage and entertain the reader of today.

With this in mind, I’m hoping that as we hurtle toward the Singularity (again, of whichever form), things don’t get so weird that we are denied our ability to dream a future which won’t bore us. Or more importantly, our readers.
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